I’ll start this book review with two anecdotes of my own, from a Mormon ward in Belgium.
Last Sunday, in church, the bishop’s sister told us that her little boys were so excited because they were looking forward to the swimming party in the afternoon. The bishop’s own family and the families of his siblings were going to enjoy a pleasurable family Sunday afternoon: togetherness, games, swimming, fun and food, and it would probably last until late in the evening.
A few Sundays before, at the end of the meeting block, as I still had something else to attend to, my wife asked brother and sister M. if she could get a ride home with them. The M’s live in our neighborhood, about six miles from the chapel.
- Of course, they said. We just need to make a little detour.
The detour turned out to be a ten mile extra trip, to a specific baker, where the M’s got their Sunday pastries.
- We’ve been going to this one for twenty years. For us, he is the best.
Belgian bakers, indeed, whose refined, fragrant shops can be found in every neighborhood, each have their reputation. Sunday is their peak day, when from 7 AM on customers form lines in the street. For nothing equals the freshly baked delicacies to enjoy on Sunday, when a typical Belgian family gathers around a festive table at home.
- We’ve got children and grandchildren coming over this afternoon, added brother M., to explain the quantity bought.
One must read Harline’s Sunday: A history of the first day from Babylonia to the Super Bowl (Doubleday, 2007, 450 pages) to understand the fascinating historical and cultural elements that have shaped the concept of Sunday observance in various countries. Dr. Harline is professor of history at BYU, and already the author of four remarkable books on aspects of Catholic history in the age of the Reformation, with special attention to Flanders and the Netherlands. Sunday has a much broader chronological and geographical scope: it is the history of the concept of this special day in the Western world, from its origins in Babylonian and Jewish traditions, up to Super Bowl Sunday. Three thousand years of Sundays.
Harline warns the reader from the onset: it is impossible to describe all aspects, moments, places, and perspectives dealing with Sunday in a single book. A limited focus implies selection. Harline had to make severe and sometimes arbitrary choices. He therefore concentrates on Western Europe and the United States, and on representative moments in time. Still, for the non-specialist the 450 pages form a coherent overview of major developments, in clearly delineated chapters.
Chapter 1 is a little more theoretical than other chapters, as it explains how pagan and Jewish traditions evolved into a Roman-Christian Sun-day. Noteworthy is that to early Christians Sunday, or the Lordâ€™s Day as they called it, had nothing to do with the Jewish Sabbath, and did not follow any Sabbath rhythms except for a moment of “worship”. Most of Sunday was a normal working day. Only after 500 did Sunday begin to acquire Sabbath-like characteristics, such as “rest”. And only in the seventh century were typical Sabbath restrictions for the first time linked to Sunday. Harline thus raises the ancient question of: what is the precise relationship of the Jewish Sabbath to the Christian Sunday? To believers at present, centuries removed from those old developments, the relationship seems clearâ€”but it wasnâ€™t so until after 600. Previously, Sunday was meant to have a different character from the restrictive Sabbath in Jewish traditions.
The rest of the book reads like a novel, replete with concrete examples of people’s experiences and myriads of anecdotes, carefully vested in thorough research. The reading is made particularly pleasant by a semi-literary, conversational style, with all the bibliographical notes ordered per subchapter at the end of the book.
Chapter 2 deals with the Middle Ages, set in England around 1300. By now the rules of the Christian Sunday were clear: it was to be a full day free of work, with worship and rest. The question was: did “resting” simply mean no work, or did it also include play? Almost all Christians showed by their actions that Sunday rest in fact included, after services, a lot of recreation.
Chapter 3 takes us to the Dutch Republic in 1624, where Harline describes daily life and Sunday observance from the journal of Reformed schoolteacher David Beck. Same pattern: we learn that, overall, Sunday had developed into a day free of labor, but still open to a lot of amusement, once the church service was over. Less so in England, where the Puritans were pushing their vision of a strict Sunday, with long church meetings, without any other activity, except those related to religion. More than any other group, the Puritans authored the tradition that play on Sunday was wrong; “rest” meant soberly pondering oneâ€™s salvation and engaging in charitable activities, not laughter or traditional “fun”.
France in the 19th century, the topic of Chapter 4, introduces us to the pleasure-seeking “Continental Sunday” of the French bourgeoisie, with its promenades, concerts, and eating out, but also to the horrible Sundays of the working class, victims of industrialization. Chapter 5 is devoted to Belgium in the early 20th century (my little country dominated by Catholicism), where Sundays are a “rural idyll”: after morning Mass, the day is committed to joyful, familial and social recreation as it has continued since. But Harline contrasts it also with the somber Sundays of the First World War, when so many died in Flanders Fields.
The next chapter brings us to England, between the two world wars. Although things were slowly changing, the English Sunday remained basically the strict, dull, sleepy “day of negatives and emptiness”, which the Puritan tradition had established and had exported, a few centuries before, to America with the Pilgrims.
The final, and most extensive chapter, deals with the United States since the 1950s: the American cultural variety is also reflected in the many ways Sunday is experienced and how the duality of the holy day / holiday evolved – up to an almost sacralized Super Bowl Sunday. As Harline points out, “holy day” and “holiday” in medieval English meant exactly the same thing, unlike the juxtaposed meaning they are typically given today. And he believes there is something to be learned from that single meaningâ€”one cannot do without the other.
Since the early Middle Ages, throughout the centuries, one religious constant: from the side of Church leaders (and sometimes the government) the endless debates, laws and regulations, about what is allowed and not allowed on Sunday, from the most restrictive, paranoid rules, to more leniency, reasonableness, and humanity. A classic dispute is about the meaning of “rest” as elaborated by the Puritans: allowing recreation or not? But, if recreation is allowed, there is then the problem of those who need to work to provide recreation. Harline follows many of these contesting threads, showing the interaction between the various cultural factors that shape Sunday observances.
Mormonism’s stance on Sunday is only treated briefly: we are very much part of the Puritan tradition, which prevailed in New England at the time of Joseph Smith.
All in all, a fascinating book, which I read from various personal backgrounds: as a former Catholic altar boy in Belgium, as a Mormon convert in the 1960s in the realm of our Primitive Church, as a member of a strong American ward in Provo (including the experience of dinner with ward members during Super Bowl Sunday), and now as a Sunday school teacher, temporarily back in a Belgian ward anno 2007.
The book made me ponder the influence of culture into the conceptualization of today’s Mormon Sunday observance, both in Utah and within our internationally expanding church. Based on the clear admonitions from church leaders, in Mormonism a strict Puritan-like-tradition prevails. But, as my two introductory anecdotes show, things are not always simple. Indeed, the two cases I mentioned involve non-Mormon family members in a divergent cultural setting compared to Utah. The search for compatibility between our religious requirements and family-obligations may lead to compromises, with or without feelings of uneasiness and guilt.
There is more to contemplate when we consider non-American cultural elements in their relation to Mormonism. E.g., in some countries the concept of Family home evening on Monday evening may not square well with school and work obligations and schedules. Sunday afternoon is often the best time for family togetherness, including fun and games and outings â€“ as most converts already knew it before joining the Church. Part of the “good things” allowed to keep or not? Harline makes it clear that the elimination of many “good things” occurred at a specific historical moment and timeâ€”namely the Puritans in sixteenth-century England and seventeenth-century America. But most other Christians kept the longstanding practice of including recreation on Sunday.
Next, to what extent can the broader social context be taken into account? In Utah County there is nothing happening on Sunday outside church. In a country like Belgium, that time is filled with intense social life: scouting, exhibitions, festivals, sports, concerts, open door visits to museums and monuments, free guided tours, historical evocations, humanitarian projects. At the same time, strict laws, guarded by the unions, limit Sunday commerce to the minimum, while for those who work on Sunday a “rest-day” during the week is obligatory.
Should Mormons in the international Church abstain from any aspect of Sunday cultural and social life in their country, thus also segregating themselves, isolating their children, and diminishing the opportunities for missionary work because of less involvement in the broader society? The struggles to come to such adaptations and decisions, the arguments pro and contra, are found within Christian churches since the 4th century, as Harline demonstrates extensively.
I warmly recommend reading Harline’s book to better understand the cultural roots of the Sunday choices made over time, and to discover a large number of captivating individuals in their experiences with the first day of the week – dreading it, just undergoing it, or loving it.